When compassion fails

11 08 2011

One night recently, I was at a social gathering at a public venue, when my friend said, “Hey, Jen, did you recognize the guy who just served you at the counter? It’s your favorite student of all time!” I had not, in fact, recognized the man in question. Regardless, he is someone I will never forget: the only student I’ve ever worked with for whom my loathing and anger was so complete that absolutely no compassion existed in my heart for him. None. He was a liar, abusive to others, incapable of considering anyone else’s feelings, a bully, and – I felt sure – a sociopath. In all honesty, the only student I’ve ever claimed to hate.

Years have passed since he was a student. In the intervening time, whenever his name was mentioned, I’ve felt a residue of the negative feelings he inspired in me. Former students often ask, “Was I the worst student you’ve ever had?!”, and my answer is always, “Not even close,” because this other guy so clearly owns that label. So, when we were once again in the same room, I watched him surreptitiously. And was surprised to feel…nothing.

On one hand, it was good to know that the lingering feelings of rancor in my heart were no longer an active emotion. Rather, they were the ephemera left by long-remembered experience. On the other hand, it allowed me to think: what would our interactions have been had I attempted to express compassion for this young man when he was a student? Is it possible that one or both of us would be different people today had I been able to find empathy – something that I’ve been able to offer to most people with whom I interact – in my heart for him?

The easy answer is no. Nothing would have been different, because he was determined to act out in the aggressive manner he did. Compassion would have been laughed at, seen as weakness to be exploited. Indeed, I watched that happen with others who approached him offering friendship or care.

The much harder to accept answer, the one I reluctantly come to each time I parse it, is yes. I don’t know, and will never be able to say, whether compassion from me would have had a positive effect on him. But I know in my heart it would have positively affected me. It is so easy to slap a label (sociopath, for example) on someone and call your responsibilities toward that person done. I was careful to fulfill my professional responsibilities with regard to this student, and I tracked it all in reports and letters to him and to my supervisor. But I know I made a choice to forego my responsibility as a fellow human being out of anger and dislike. The fact that my feelings were activated by my care for those suffering from his actions was how I justified my choice. In hindsight, I know that is simply a way to let myself off the hook.

Why am I sharing this? The very day I saw my former student, was the day I posted on this blog that “love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in this world,” (lyrics from a Martina McBride song), and expressed my gratitude for compassion offered to me by friends and perfect strangers alike. It was not lost on me, as I sat looking at this stranger I had once interacted with, that I had not offered him as good as I’ve gotten. Mercy and compassion allow us to give back to the world some of the good we’ve been given. It isn’t supposed to just be offered to those who’ve granted it to us, a kind of karmic tit-for-tat. If I hope to add to the atmosphere of good in this world, and I do, the only way is to bring good where none previously existed. To offer compassion in response to aggression or apathy. To offer love when hatred has been put on the table.

Am I beating myself up over mistakes I made much earlier in my life? Not really. I’ve made so many, even I am aware this is just one of them. I can’t go back and change how those interactions played out. But I can learn a lesson when one slaps me in the face (yep, pretty much an apt description of my academic experiences, too!). I share it here, not because I grew up Catholic and have a need for public confession. Rather, I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, I will hold myself accountable to practice my life accordingly. When compassion fails, my ability to be my best self fails. So does my hope to help create a better world.

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